Happy Halloween 2012

October 31, 2012 — Over the past month and a half, this Halloween Blog has featured such weirdness as brains in jars, a Ouija board gravestone, and Joe Piscopo, but you know what? It’s this post right here that’s the most surreal one. Halloween is here. Just like that and just like the calendar promised.

There are times throughout the season that it feels like Halloween is never going to get here. Other times like it’s worn out its welcome a bit before it arrives. And every once in a while, every strange once in a while, it feels like it’s the norm for life.

Today is the truth, though. Halloween is here, and tomorrow it will be gone.

Like so much confetti after a party.
The thing about immersing yourself in a long Halloween is that you’re okay with letting it go, exchanging it at the customer service counter for Christmas. Part of that is because you know it’ll come back around again just when you need it. Most of it is because you’ve been posting for 49 straight days and just don’t have the energy to hit that upload button again. I might be projecting a bit on that last one.

Of course, this year I was helped out on that task immensely by the publication of The New York Grimpendium, from which I posted lots of photo essays based on my book. That sounds like a segue to a sales pitch, but I sincerely just want to bring it up to thank every one of you who bought it (or will buy it), who dropped me a line telling me that they liked it (or liked my other book better), gave me a review on Amazon, or talked about it on their personal website or on social media. I appreciate that support way past italics and bold and underline and caps lock.

But the end of the Halloween season isn’t the end of The New York Grimpendium, just as it wasn’t the end for its predecessor back in 2010. The macabre is relevant year-round, and it’ll make a unique Christmas present.  Even Christmas has its spooks. Also, even if you don't live in New England or New York, I’d like to say that buying my books regardless of your own geography is a way to support OTIS in general, because a successful audience reception opens doors for me to do more and varied projects apart from the website, which in turn inspires me to keep at the website itself. Ok, that part was a sales pitch.

And while this season might have started out as the Halloween of The New York Grimpendium, it ended as the Halloween of Sandy, the Frankenstorm, the Superstorm, the Hallowcane. Here on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border, we got tons of rain, lots of wind, some power outages, a couple of work-from-home days. Nothing terrible. I did have to chase down my recycling bin at about midnight and my town lost a 20-foot-tall moose statue.

But that’s cool, at least for those of us not in a disaster area (and to those of you who are, I hope everything gets back to normal for you soon). It gave the days leading up to Halloween a great ambiance, since howling wind and torrential rain are some of the ingredients for a perfect season. Except for Halloween night itself. The kids must trick-or-treat.

And speaking of which, my kid is finally just old enough to trick-or-treat...which means, tonight, that same weather willing, I go trick-or-treating for the first time in, I don’t know, 30 years. I’m a little nervous, a little excited. And I kind of wish I had made more friends with the neighbors since I moved in.

I guess I’ll tell you all about it on next year’s Halloween Season Blog. Maybe by then I will have a consistent name for this event.

Until then, your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly here on OTIS: Weird travels, personal anecdotes, a thought or two, and maybe I'll get around to that article on seaQuest DSV once I finish watching the entire series.

Happy Halloween, everybody.

Still my most favorite moment
of the season...

Eating E.T.

October 30, 2012 — So the other night we autopsied an alien and then ate what we found. Thanks, Toys R Us.

If Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon has ever lightened your living room, then you’ve seen the commercials for the Dr. Dreadful line of playsets. They’re made by Umagine, a subsidiary toy company of Spin Master. And I mention that because I believe we’d all be better citizens if we knew where our toys came from.

Dr. Dreadful is a line of toy lab equipment that lets kids pretend to do mad-scientist-type stuff followed by mad-man-type stuff. Grind up organs…and eat them. Hatch spider eggs…and eat them. Dig out zombie brains…and eat them. It’s like an Easy-Bake Oven market-tested on the children of Ed Gein.

We recently picked up the Dr. Dreadful Alien Autopsy set to try it out. First, because it’s the newest set, so every toy store had it stocked. But mostly because I have a fondly worn place in my memory banks for the FOX channel’s Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction special hosted by Jonathan Frakes back in the mid-1990s when The X-Files had the country at the peak of extraterrestrial paranoia. We will get back there one day. I promise.

I’m not going to lie. I was really looking forward to this.

The kit took a bit of quick assembly. Nothing involving tools, really, other than reaffixing a battery cover. Just some easy and satisfying snap-together pieces and the insertion of the batteries that were not included. I even snapped the lungs in backwards, and everything still worked out okay. Life should be a lot more like that.

From the neck down, the alien was extremely bottom-heavy, much like E.T. himself, making it look as if waddling was its primary means of locomotion when it was alive. From the neck up, it’s the classic big-eyed gray alien that abducts the most backwoods of our own species. Its eyes were hollowed out, though, as molds for edible eyeballs. And the whole creature was colored sky blue because there was probably a sale on that color of plastic while it was being mass-produced.

It lay elevated on a gray autopsy table, and its body hinged open to reveal more cavities to use as molds. The coolest pieces in the whole set, though, were the packets of candy powder that bore lurid names in the most mundane of typefaces on generic white packets. If there were such a thing as intestine mix, lung bug mix, and stomach mix, this is exactly how they would be packaged for shipment.

Anyway, the directions are the same for whatever you’re creating, Mix the candy powder with some water, inject it or dump it with the included syringe or spoon into one of the molds incorporated throughout the interior of the alien, stick it into the fridge until it hardens, and then peel it out and consume, ideally laughing maniacally in front of the most squeamish person in your family.

Those molds include the aforementioned eyeballs, the lungs (each of which is filled with either a worm or a bug), the guts, and the intestines, in colors that ranged from black to blue to green, depending on which powder you used. I’m not sure, but I think guts and intestines are the same thing in real life. I think that Umagine just didn’t want to use the word “bowels.”

It was all pretty simple, but took a little bit of practice if you wanted the product to turn out like it looks on the box. The only bummer was waiting while the candy set up. Puts a dint in play time when your toy’s sitting in the fridge.

The coolest effect was the stomach. A simple AA-battery-powered vibrating disk shook up a rubber purple membrane that made the viscous green goop you poured into it jump like a sped up version of the bottom half of a lava lamp. As you can see by the pictures, it worked really well, as long as you had the right amount of goop in there. You know that you’ve done it right when you end up with a mess all over the kitchen table.

And, actually, mess is how it all ends up. You get tired of doing things exactly right and just end up pouring things together and changing the mix ratios and spilling, spilling, spilling.

Oh right, I almost forgot. Then you eat everything you made. It’s one of the few toy boxes that comes imprinted with its own FDA-mandated nutritional information. A lot of zeros in that black and white grid.

The candy comes out like gummy candy or fruit snacks and that’s pretty much how it all tastes, too. Except bad. Like plasticky fruit snacks. That’s a good thing, though. Because if they were good and you developed a taste for them, you’d be in trouble because it’s a limited supply of candy powder and a lot of effort to go through just for a bite or two. Plus, if I’m eating alien intestines, I want them to taste kind of bad, else the whole conceit is just wasted.

Anyway, it’s one of those toys a kid will get a lot of mileage out of, just not in the way it was meant to be played with. We’ll probably not use it as a candy maker ever again. But we will have other toys operate on the alien and we’ll fill it with whatever we have on hand. And, at the very least it will end up as a shelf decoration in front of my copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials or Captured!: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience.

It was all fun and games until we watched E.T.: The Extraterrestrial the very next night. Then we just felt bad.

Halloween Triops

October 29, 2012 — I’m cheating a little on this post since it’s not Halloween-related, but I can’t help the timing. My triops are big enough to photograph now.

And while that statement sounds like something that should be posted on a WebMD forum, I’m actually talking about tiny crustaceans that I hatched in my bathroom.

And since that stills sound like something I shouldn’t be boasting about, I’ll start over.

Triops are tiny shrimp that look like miniature horseshoe crabs and range in size from an inch to three, with some species growing even larger. They get their name from the three black dots on the front end of their carapace, only two of which are actual eyes. They also closely resemble fossil species from 200 million years ago, so the word “prehistoric” is often included everywhere in their marketing.

Yes, these animals are marketed. Usually in toy stores and science shops. That’s because in egg form, these creatures can be dried out and suspended close to indefinitely, and only take a little water to hatch.

There are a bunch of different shrimp species like this: fairy shrimp, brine shrimp, tadpole shrimp, dinosaur shrimp. Actually, I’m not sure which are actual species names, which are product spin, and which are just different names for the same thing. Back in the day, many of them were sold as sea monkeys, although these days companies have gotten a little more sophisticated in their marketing.

In fact, we got ours under the auspicious Smithsonian brand in a three-pack of kits. In the other two, you can create a volcano with glowing lava and excavate a plastic T-Rex skeleton out of a pressed gray block of some sediment-like substance.

The triops kit came with a small, thin plastic tank, a picture of a Tyranosaurus Rex as a tank backing to emphasize how prehistoric this little swimmers are (and becaue it’s a cool effect to have tiny shrimp swimming around the head of a T-Rex), and the invisible-to-the-eyes eggs in a packet of moss.

It took about 60 seconds to set everything up, which mostly just meant dumping everything in the tank with some room-temperature, filtered water. We took pictures of the set-up, but lost them somewhere on a hard drive or memory card. I’ll probably find them decades from now when I’m very old and very nostalgic for the days when we obsessed over still-frame digital information. But even though Id on’t have the photographic proof, we followed the directions exactly, except for the dino backing. I had some other ideas:

Now is it a Halloween post?

Next, we tried our hardest to kill the triops.

The first thing we did was lose their food. So two days later when we were surprised to see tiny white specs swimming purposefully around the tank, we ended up throwing some boiled vegetable matter in there, because they apparently eat everything, and they seemed to do okay. I assumed they were just eating each other, because water-logged broccoli looks disgusting. We did eventually get them some bottom feeder food from the pet store.

All told, we ended up with about a dozen of them that, over the course of the past couple of weeks, grew fast to various sizes, with the largest being about half an inch or so. In fact, they’re big enough that I’m realizing that they aren’t triops at all, but some other species. They look like brine shrimp, but since they’re living in fresh water, they're probably whatever the fresh water equivalent it. Anyway, the point is that this article is now neither about Halloween nor triops. Need to change the title.

Anyway, they mostly swim on their backs like tiny alien otters, their multiple appendages combing the water for food. And they’re just the devils to take pictures of at my camera skill and equipment level. So my apologies for the bad pics and the fact that Darwin made them tiny, transparent, and fast. I should have called in my wife for this project, but trying to get them turned into still-frame digital information was the closest I was able to get to playing with my pets. They suck at fetching.

We threw the tank on a shelf in the bathroom for some reason, and the only upkeep I do is to stick some food in the tank every other day and then top off the water level when it evaporates. It’s literally the least I can do until they die. Which shouldn’t be too much longer since they have a lifespan of about one to three months.

They’ve been alive for about four weeks now. Of course, I’m not claiming that these guys are living a very high standard of life, just that at least they have their health. And, strangely, we’ve lately seen tiny white specs swimming purposefully among the adults. So maybe they have their health and sex.

If so, that is a high standard of life.

Whatever, though. I’m assuming we killed them all weeks ago through incompetence, and that these are just their ghosts.

It is Halloween, after all.

Salem Before the Storm

October 28, 2012 — I’ve gotten to know the October version of Salem, Massachusetts, relatively well over the past five years. I’m able to recognize many of its street performers from three blocks away, know the best exit to take to skip the traffic, and can generally navigate its alleys and streets with enough confidence to look really stupid when I inevitably take a wrong turn.

Of course, there are quite a few attractions and historical sites in Salem that I’ve never done for one reason or the other. One day I hope to do them all. But yesterday wasn’t a day for exploring Salem. It was a day for experiencing it.

And it was perfect timing for it. The Saturday before Halloween is always an amazing, overwhelming time in Witch City. But yesterday it felt just a bit more amazing. A bit more overwhelming.

And I think it was because of Frankenstorm.

These guys didn't actually look like
they were in costume.
This extremely hyped storm and soon-to-be SyFy motion picture is prophesied to hit the East Coast with legendary force and outrageous duration at some point tomorrow.

That means Halloween could be a bit iffy. I don’t have to remind you of last year’s Oct-snow-ber, where, in my town at least, kids had to put off trick-or-treating until a week into November. It was the first time I ever hated Halloween.

I think yesterday, in Salem, people were taking advantage of the nice weather to squeeze in as much Halloween as possible before they had to start preparing for everything going end-of-the-world.

And they call it Sandy…Claws.

I’m a skeptic about most things, but who knows what the next few days hold. If you’re on any of those paths that the weather forecasters keep predicting with cheesy crooked lines in multiple cheesy colors, stock up on liquor and horror movies. Actually, if your power goes out, you’ll need flashlight batteries and horror stories. Still liquor, of course.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the possibility of this Frankenstorm (and appreciate that it helps give me a new writing angle on these posts). I don’t want Halloween to be cancelled, especially since my kid is old enough to trick-or-treat this season…which means I’ll be trick-or-treating for the first time in decades. But, man, this could be quite exciting and intensely Halloween-esque. And I say that as a man whose house isn’t on a flood plain and which shares an electrical grid with a hospital.

Back to Salem (which I just mis-typed badly enough for the spellchecker to replace with “Satan”), yesterday was a great day for wandering around, meeting up with friends, breathing fake fog vapor, giving wrong directions to first-time visitors, ogling all the strange sites that only Salem can offer, and generally being happy that it’s still the Halloween Season.

Here’s some more of what it was like:

Headless horsemen and witches
can live in harmony.

I don't even know what...

The Jack-O-Lantern is My Favorite Metaphor

October 27, 2012 — This Halloween Blog has been around for two Halloweens, and for each one I wrote a piece about pumpkin carving (here and here). In this, our third season, I’m not sure I have anything else original to really say about it. However, I believe it’s the one part of Halloween that should always be there. Even if trick-or-treating gets Frankenstorm’d away, even if the Hallowcane knocks out your power and you can’t watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, if you carved a Jack-o-lantern this year, then you did Halloween.

Also, in looking over those previous two entries, it’s weird that in both years I took what is really not much more than an arts and crafts project and turned it into in a philosophical meditation on life and the state of humankind. I'm going to have to admit it. The Jack-o-lantern is my favorite metaphor.

I mean, we’re gouging a smiley face into a squash, which it is then forced to wear while it rots on a stoop and we party. The Jack-o-lantern has to literally grin and bear it. If pumpkins had of been indigenous to the Middle East then both the Bible and the Koran would have had a much easier time communicating the truths about the universe.

Lines like that make me stop and count how many drinks I’ve had.

Anyway, as I alluded to earlier, there's not too much to this story. We threw down some newspaper, gathered our sharpest utensils, and cut into some pumpkin flesh.

The biggest difference this year is that we carved three pumpkins. One for me, one for my wife, and one for our almost-three-year-old. She’s not old enough to wield cutlery (when her mom’s around), but she is old enough to design the face on her own pumpkin.

And, man, did she do a job. I’m not just saying that as a proud parent who is biologically predisposed to be so. I’m saying that as a guy who wants weird faces on his own Jack-Os but is barely able to think outside of the triangle. I went with X eyes this year.

Her pumpkin, the smallest of the three, looks like a face reflected in a funhouse mirror. Or maybe she has a really bad but as yet undiagnosed astigmatism and that’s really how she sees us. Either way, even though my wife cut the actual holes, she did it according to a pattern neither one of us could have achieved had we a Pumpkin Master kit designed by Salvador Dali himself.

I really should have had her draw the faces on all three pumpkins. Would have been a much more interesting post.

Meanwhile, our comfort movie that we watched while teaching my kid phrases like “pumpkin guts” and “flesh wound” was The Monster Squad.

Besides the great Stan Winston creature creations, most of the allure of this 1987 movie is that it’s complete wish fulfillment for every monster fan out there. That we one day learn that classic monsters are real and that some of them are cool enough to hang out with and others are so evil they must be fought with the passion of Peter Cushing.

The only thing I’d forgotten about the movie was the amount of PG-13 language, so not only did we teach our child how to carve a pumpkin this year, we taught her how to curse.

And that, in a pumpkin shell, is why I’ll never be a proud parent. If she turns out okay, it’ll be despite me. Or to spite me. That’s the plot of A Boy Named Sue, I think.

You didn’t see that allusion coming.

Make sure you torture some pumpkins this year.

Bag of the Red Death

October 26, 2012 — Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of the death of horror actor Vincent Price. I know this not because I’m an appreciator of his work. Although I am. A huge one. I also don’t know this because I’m good at dates. I’m not. In three days, I’ll forget the significance of October 25.

I know the date because one of my ideas for the Halloween blog this year was to put together a Halloween calendar: 31 spooky things that happened on each of the 31 days of October. Like the Orson Welles War of the Worlds scare on October 30, 1898. The Twilight Zone series debut on October 2, 1959. And Vincent Price’s death on October 25, 1993. He was denied just one more Halloween.

Anyway, I got too busy for the calendar idea, but somehow on the night that I was researching Price’s last day on the planet, he caused me to buy a candy bag on eBay. Not a bag of candy, mind you, but a small, yellowing empty bit of paper bearing the name of the long defunct, “National Candy Co.” It cost me six bucks. But I had an idea. A way to honor Vincent Price on his death day.

The National Candy Company was started in the early 1900s by Vincent Leonard Price, Sr., Vincent Price’s father, and some other gents. VLP, Sr., ending up president of the company, and it was headquartered in Price’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and was the biggest candy company in the country at one point with a couple of dozen factories churning out jellybeans, jawbreakers, and other tooth-rotters. Today, the 115-year-old, seven-floor factory on Gravois Avenue in St. Louis is considered a historical monument.

In 1948, when Vincent Price was in his late 30s, the company was sold to Chase Candy Company. Price was just about a decade into his film career at the time and I don’t know how big he was on being a Willy Wonka. Hm. Price as Willy Wonka. No. Still doesn’t beat Gene Wilder.

Chase Candy Company was started in 1876, and is still in existence today; however, it long ago dissolved the original National brand. According to the eBay listing, this 6x4-inch bag dates back to 1940s. I believe it, because we need much bigger bags to consume our allotments of candy today.

Anyway, the idea was to watch one of Vincent Price’s movies on the night of his death, while eating candy from this artifact of his grandfather’s company. Seems a tad convoluted, but my big idea is literally to eat candy and watch a horror movie. It’s not exactly an exemplar of creativity.

The real quandary, though, was what to fill that bag with. The candy National was known for was either generic or not around anymore. Plus, I wanted to pair it thematically with whatever Vincent Price movie we ended up watching. Gummy flies and The Fly? Peppermint Patty Bats and The Bat? Wax bottles and House of Wax? Tongue Tinglers and The Tingler? Obviously that last one is the winner, but apparently Tongue Tinglers are an Australian candy brand, and I didn’t have enough time or money to get something as silly as candy shipped across the world. I mean, I bought a 70-year-old paper bag, that should be enough, right?

I eventually decided to go simple. Red candies and Roger Corman’s 1964 The Masque of the Red Death. After all, Edgar Allan Poe’s death anniversary was less than three weeks ago. You learn a lot of dates when putting together half of a calendar.

For our own particular Red Death, we went out and bought Swedish Fish, Twizzlers, Cinnamon Bears, Hot Tamales, and Boston Baked Beans, mixed them all together, stuck as many as we could in the National Candy Company bag, and watched the movie, our recently carved Jack-O-Lanterns glowing and grinning at us like puppy dogs waiting for our scraps. They can have my Hot Tamales. Those things always taste like stink bugs smell. Just kidding. There’s no candy I won’t eat if I can just get through the first handful or so.

The Masque of the Red Death is one Poe’s more surreal stories, and one of the more surreal Corman-Price adaptations. In it, a hedonistic, cruel, Satan-worshipping prince (played perfectly by Price, naturally) tries to hide himself and his fellow nobles in a sealed-up castle from a plague sweeping the country, the titular Red Death. The film is basically one long, depraved party. Its mood is consistent and unrelieved, and if it were remade today would be full of bizarre sex. And it has one of my favorite movie posters of all time.

They padded Poe’s short story into feature length by adding the Satanist angle and merging it with Poe’s story Hop-Frog, which was based on the horrific and real-life Ball of The Burning Men, a tragedy that makes me happy I’m a wallflower.

As to my own story, when you’re just eating candy and watching a movie, there’s no way to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. By the time the rainbow of personified diseases was walking somberly around the haunted forest at the end of the film, I’d done some good damage to all that Red No. 5. And came close to destroying my National Candy Company bag by almost dropping it in a Cherry Pepsi spill. When I find a theme, I stick with it, man.

I said at the beginning of this post that Vincent Price wasn’t allowed one more Halloween. However, he was given every single Halloween from then on out. When you dedicate such a big part of your life to the macabre as he did with his acting career, you’ll be remembered every October. Also, the appropriate pun there is “deadicate.”

Happy Death Day, Mr. Price.